The Egyptian Crisis Proves the Need for Anonymity

January 29, 2011

Politics, Security, Technology, TOR

I had a very interesting conversation at work yesterday.  Someone I work with asked me about the “cool tools” that I really believe in.  After thinking long and hard about the question, I told him that I believe in freedom of speech and I believe in anonymity as a bulwark to ensure both the freedom of speech and the freedom of thought.  He nodded his head at the blandishment.  Then I told him about TOR (the onion router).  After a few minutes, he asked for a URL.  So I gladly pointed him to http://www.torproject.org.

Most of the time, I am greeted with crickets when I talk about TOR.  In fact, most people recite the old rubric that if you have done nothing wrong, then you should have nothing to hide.  While I often agree with this sentiment, I always cringe when I hear it.  Why?  Because Americans have a fundamental right to think and speak whatever is in our hearts and minds.  But in some places, the definitions of right and wrong are horribly twisted.  During times of great crisis, freedoms are routinely challenged.  And that is exactly what is happening in Egypt today.

I am not informed enough to know whether President Hosni Mubarak is or is not a tyrant.  He is unelected.  And he has been the unelected leader since the death of Anwar Sadat (over thirty years ago).  And he has suppressed speech – especially the speech of the extreme minorities (like the Muslim Brotherhood).  Do I want a stable regime that is peaceful towards Israel to be replaced by some unknown group that may be hostile to peace?  Absolutely not.  But I can’t read the future.  So I won’t comment on what I would like to see.  Again, I am not familiar enough to pick “right” and “wrong” in a complex multinational  struggle.

But I do know this: when freedom is challenged, geeks turn to technology.  And there are geeks in Egypt that are turning toward TOR.  When President Mubarak shut down cell phones, messages came from alternate sources.  And when folk feared that their browsing and their postings would be monitored, they turned to the tools of anonymity.

TOR usage has skyrocketed.  There are now four times as many people using TOR to ensure their anonymity.  And the number of relays supporting these users has also skyrocketed (see below).

This spike in relays is across the globe.  And geeks everywhere are bombarding Twitter and they are deluging Facebook.  And folks are starting to march in America.  I am so glad to see that people are engaged and active.  I am not certain what outcome I want to see.  But I do want to see freedom of speech and freedom of thought flourish in times of turmoil.  So count me in.

-Roo

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